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Mystery Train: All Aboard "Baccano!"

by on April 29, 2010

If the past really is another country, then Baccano! is doubly foreign; a view of America’s past seen through Japanese eyes. Set in the early 1930s—the heyday of Prohibition, gangsters, and the Great Depression—the show is an intricately constructed mare’s nest. Put in motion by a mob family feud in New York, it relates what happened aboard The Flying Pussyfoot, a luxury train packed with mobsters, adventurers, terrorists, small-time crooks, and several characters who literally refuse to die, no matter how many bullets you pump into them. How did all these characters come to be on the train, how are they related to each other, and what did they do after getting off? What strange, ancient alchemy has given some of them eternal life? Who is the mysterious “Rail Tracer” who stalks the train in a relentless killing spree?

The show slyly answers these questions through exceedingly sophisticated and self-conscious storytelling. The first and last episodes engage in a Pirandellian search for a main character and a beginning and an end to the story; they ultimately suggest that such quests are futile. “All [stories] have are the facts of life; of people making connections, interacting, influencing each other, and spreading out.” Baccano demonstrates this truth by demanding that we piece together the big picture these facts comprise, feeding us a morsel of context at a time. Scenes loop in and out of each other: we may see the end of a scene, then its beginning and finally its middle, but each of these parts is interlaced with parts of other scenes, so that past and present are often hard to distinguish, being in constant communication across a system of wormholes and portals; four episodes can go by before the entirety of a scene is disclosed. By serving as the show’s temporal anchor, The Flying Pussyfoot becomes the facilitation site for these intertwined flashbacks and flashforwards.

Directed by Takahiro Omori and animated by Brain’s Base studio, Baccano! uses a periodically diffused, overexposed look that might seem inappropriate until you catch yourself comparing it to an Edward Hopper painting. Omori gets away with compositions that would look fussy and mannered in live action, especially when used to dress up static dialogue scenes, and the vital transitions between different time periods and scenes are fluidly effected through extreme closeups of ostensibly identical objects revealed to span different quadrants of space and time.

Less pleasing to the senses are the made-up, tone-deaf attempts at American/Italian names. (Blame Ryohgo Narita, whose light novels provided the source for Noboru Takagi’s script.) The booby prize goes to “Jacuzzi Splot,” the moniker of a crybaby delinquent. He’s one of almost twenty major characters, the most ubiquitous of these being Isaac Dian and Miria Harvent, a larcenous couple who share a heart of gold and like to cosplay during robberies. Bonnie and Clyde they are not. What they are is a perpetually loud pair of synchronized spazzes—watching them is like reading an email in all caps—and they’re part of Baccano‘s tendency to confuse eccentricity with characterization; its characters are mostly one-note, with strained back-stories. The mob characters, even down to major players such as Maiza and Firo Prochainezo, are the least developed cast members of all.

Aside its supernatural content, is Baccano‘s version of the past credible? The physical settings and cityscapes are, the human factor a little less so. I refuse to accept that emo haircuts were being sported in 1930; plus, giving a bum two dollars would have been an extraordinary act of generosity. There’s also not much feel for the spirit of the Depression and its desperate resolve to face the music and dance. But a conception of the past is often just a conception of films from the past, and Baccano! casually tries on period trappings with greater concern for attitude and style than anything else; like Isaac and Miria, it’s also cosplaying, though with trenchcoats and fedoras and blazing tommyguns. There is irony in the likelihood of some Americans taking their image of the 30s from this anime instead of the American films that inspired its iconography.

After having thrown so much at its viewers within the first episodes, Baccano gives them a firm foothold in the story with its seventh episode. But by episode ten the show starts to falter and get talkier as the transitions grow less graceful and the pace slows. There’s loss of freshness and a retreat into the conventional: in episode 11 we get a standard anime faceoff with several outlandish characters standing on top of a moving train spouting endless philosophical speeches at each other. The gore level also rises, since the show can sadistically kill, torture and rekill characters we know to be immortal. One of the recipients of this treatment is a child, and the violence would be more forgivable if played as a sick joke instead of exploitative drama, but Baccano wishes to pretend that it has a heart. After such lapses, the series dashes to the first of two finales. Episode 13 is the first ending, wrapping up the major plot strands with some haste as the train pulls into the station for good. Without the centripetal force of The Flying Pussyfoot, and with half the cast shunted aside now that their storylines are completed, the remaining three episodes are a disappointing epilogue padded by the introduction of an extraneous character.

If Baccano has so many characters, it’s because none is strong enough to carry the show on his or her own, and if its story is complexly ordered, it’s because it would look overwrought and baggy if told straight. The show is thus more of an exercise in style—the style of bravura storytelling—than the expression of an intrinsically great story demanding to be told. “Rid yourself of the illusion that stories have beginnings and endings” concludes one character; though Baccano obviously has both, it is only because art has to be arbitrary. Perhaps a more helpful quote is Jean-Luc Godard’s desire that “a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… but not necessarily in that order.” His wish came true; to a certain extent, so did mine.

Besides a Japanese promotional piece, the only notable extras on this three disc set are four commentaries chaired by Tyler Walker, the American dub’s ADR director, with much banter from the cast. Walker and company have approached the show as a sort of cultural homecoming—they bring to it a familiarity and ease we could not expect the Japanese to possess, and one can’t blame Americans for preferring the American version, especially since the performances of the “all-star cast” of Japanese voice actors are unremarkable.

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